Monday, December 31, 2012

The sun sets on another year

Another year is almost over. It hasn't been an easy one. My grandmother sadly passed away in January. The next month my job went rapidly south, as did the state of my mental health, almost as I moved into my flat. Moving out of my role in to a less stressful one was the best thing I did this year, even if it meant a severe cut in pay.

On Boxing Day I saw the Hobbit with my parents at the cinema in Geraldine. It's always a novelty to see a film there, even though I've done so a few times now. You get sofas to sit on, a mirror ball and an interval. I was really tired but it was a worthwhile watch. My only criticism was that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) seemed too human. I'm thinking of seeing A Life of Pi but the book was so damn good that I'd be worried that the film might spoil it.

I recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It was grim stuff, but certainly a captivating grim. I was puzzled a bit by the author's stylistic punctuation, or rather the lack of it. Apostrophes were removed from all contractions ending in -n't, e.g. cant or doesnt, and a lot of two-word phrases were fused together as a single word. The world had been reduced to its bare bones, so perhaps he was trying to replicate that barrenness on the page.

Mum has two female friends over from Australia. Their arrival (earlier today) has come at an inopportune time; Mum's stress levels have been off the scale.

Some top-class darts again this morning's semi-finals. Michael van Gerwen, who survived two match darts and a tie-break in his quarter-final, hit a nine-darter and had a dart for another perfect leg immediately afterwards. When I used to follow the game in my teens, nine-darters were so rare as to be almost mythical.

I'm about to go into Timaru with my brother to see in 2013 on Caroline Bay. The highlight of this holiday for me has undoubtedly been all the time I've spent with my brother. We get on really well.

Being a numbers geek, I note that the coming year will be the first for 26 years to consist of four different digits.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wish I could dart back up to Wellington

I was looking forward to Christmas as a chance to unwind, but instead the tension here has ratcheted up to the max. The situation between my brother and (let's face it) his ex-partner has gone from bad to worse. Something happened the night before last which I can't write about here. It meant I spent most of yesterday away from my family - a welcome break for me.

Yesterday I met Phil in Timaru. We played mini-golf again. I lost again, this time by five shots (60 to 65). In 1989 it cost $2.50 a round. Last year it was $3. Now it's $5. Everything else at the carnival has also gone up this year, including the darts game which doesn't seem to have increased its cash prizes to compensate, so I didn't play.

Talking of darts, the World Championships are taking place in London and I've been watching some of the games on my parents' Sky. Whether you think it's a sport that requires pinpoint accuracy and steely determination, or a game played by 21-stone beer-swilling halfwits sporting tattoos and blinging jewellery, you can't deny that it works well on TV. I'd prefer it if they cut out the American-style cheerleaders and breaks after every set (they managed without such gimmicks in the nineties) but the game does produce its fair share of characters and dramatic matches. The requirement to "check out" each leg with a double (one of the thin slivers on the outer edge of the board), or the bull's eye, certainly helps in the drama stakes, as does the format of sets and legs which can result in an engrossing tennis-style tie-break. And the game does require the use of brain cells occasionally. Take a check-out of 126. Logic would suggest that to finish on a even number you should aim for even numbers, but your best bet is to go down for 19s. Of course, for us mere mortals, finishing 126 in three darts would be such a monumental task that you'd just try to make a decent score and reduce the target to something manageable. When I used to play (some time ago) both of us would often be left desperately hammering away at double one.

Phil talked about the difficulties in buying property in Auckland. "I can't believe how racist I've become," he said when bemoaning the influx of Asian investors who keep driving up prices. From that point of view, my move to Wellington was a positive one, even allowing for all the earthquake stuff. I'd quite like to fly to Wellington right now, but I've looked on the Jetstar site and flights at such short notice at this time of year are pricey as you'd expect, so I'll tough it out here for another four days.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

29 degrees but an ice-cold Christmas

Unfortunately all the tension between my brother and his partner has cast a shadow over what was supposed to be a family Christmas.

On Christmas morning we had bacon and eggs for breakfast, followed by champagne which I needed like a hole in the head. Mum made a wonderful dinner; as usual I ate too much. We watched Mary Poppins and the brilliant Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The temperature reached 29 degrees but at least we could switch on the air con. No such luck when we visited my uncle and aunt's place in Woodbury that evening - I sweated like a pig. My brother's partner didn't go, saying she was sick. She probably did have a slight upset tummy (I don't think the drink helped) but she'd already made up her mind hours earlier that she wasn't going. That night the engaged couple (ha!) had an argument and at 2:30am she sped off back to Rolleston in her company car. Since then she's been texting and phoning my brother incessantly. She's also been sending long eloquent emails to Mum, giving her side of the story. She'll be coming over soon to pick him up; they've booked an expensive whale-watching tour at Kaikoura. I'm hoping they call it off after that.

Last Tuesday - that's the 20th - I played a freeroll poker tournament at the Realm in Hataitai. I found it stressful, I found it gimmicky, I felt out of place, I didn't play well and I didn't last long. Martin never turned up.

I saw The Intouchables with Tracy (along with only six other people) last Thursday. I organised it - that's a rarity for me. It was a damn good film. She can speak good French so we were able to compare notes about how they decided to translate this or that in the subtitles. We had a chat after the film over a meal (of sorts - she has so many weird and wonderful food allergies). She gets tired easily as a result of her thyroid problem so we didn't stay long, but I felt there was at least the possibility of something happening between her and me. Since then she hasn't contacted me at all, but she's a bit like that so I'm not giving up completely. Not yet anyway.

I was glad to finish work on Friday. It hadn't been an easy week with people seemingly still on a high from the Christmas party. The next day I went to the zoo - for the first time since I was a kid - with some people from the depression group. They take far better care of the animals than in the virtual freak shows I remember from years ago. Here are two chimpanzees with their arms out for food, a tamarin (which I always want to spell with a D) and a pair of gibbons (males are black, females are white):

Monday, December 24, 2012

Fingers crossed for tomorrow

I've just got back from midnight mass (at 8pm) in Temuka. It was a long, sweltering service at St Joseph's Hall - the church was out of action due to a supposed earthquake risk - and we sang (or mumbled) just about every carol in the book including a few I'd never heard before.

I was up at six this morning for my early flight; there was sufficient break in Wellington's fog to let me board my plane after a short delay. However I had to fork out an annoying $70 for my luggage after unwittingly booking a luggage-free ticket. My brother and his partner picked me up from the airport, showed me their flat in Rolleston and we arrived in Geraldine shortly before one.

At one stage it seemed my brother would be with his partner for life. Now that looks unlikely. They have frequent arguments that are threatening to put a damper on our family Christmas. It's all such a shame; I really hope it doesn't spoil what should be a happy day for us all tomorrow.

Last week wasn't a bad one by any means, but I'll have to write about it next time - I'm too tired right now.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Oh no, not again. That was my immediate thought when I turned on the radio to catch the news yesterday morning. Yet another school shooting. Twenty-eight dead: twelve girls and eight boys, all aged six or seven; six female staff at the school; the shooter's mother and finally himself. But for the quick thinking of the school staff there would have been more fatalities. Unfortunately this will keep on happening again and again unless America does something about its gun laws. Fat chance of that. Americans are as horrified as the rest of us when children are killed in this way, but few of them want to do anything about it. I find that utterly baffling. (I just heard on the news that there are 89 firearms per 100 Americans.)

On a lighter note we had our office Christmas party on Friday. It took place on the waterfront and started at noon. It was OK for the first couple of hours while the food was out - I've come to realise that I max out at around the two-hour mark when it comes to socialising - but I became more uncomfortable as time wore on. A lot of the talking I did (which wasn't much) was with a woman of nearly seventy - for some reason the bigger the age gap the less social pressure I feel. At half-three I was itching to leave - I was just sitting around staring into space. I was thankful to be babysitting for my cousin in the evening - that gave me a good excuse not to drink much and to leave early. I managed to escape on the dot of four. I went over to my cousin's place just after six and stayed until she and her husband got home at 11:15.

Yesterday the anxiety and depression group had a meet-up at Mac's Brewery, again on the waterfront. Only four of us showed up including a bloke from Wales, of about my age, who had only been in the country two months. He seemed a really nice, easy-going bloke, but nowhere near anxious or depressed enough to be part of the group. He talked about a recent date he went on, and the various extreme sports (which NZ is famous for of course) that he'd already tried. I almost think any prospective member should have to fill in a questionnaire if they want to join, with eligibility restricted to people who score above a certain level based on how they answered the questions. Been on a date in the last month? Lose ten points. The last week? Lose fifty. In this guy's defence, I'm pretty sure he had suffered from mental health problems in the past, and as he's new to NZ I could hardly blame him for joining groups as a way of meeting people. We had some really interesting conversation to begin with, but at the two-hour point (again) I started to struggle. When we parted company after 3½ hours I was in a worse mental state that when I arrived. I think it was the realisation that while many people find social situations hard, for most of them it's a temporary problem and only certain situations. For me it's permanent and virtually all situations. And there's the relationship thing - no matter how depressed people are, they still somehow have meaningful relationships. But I don't.

On the radio this morning they talked about "Mad Pride", a relatively new movement of mental health patients, along the lines of Black Pride or Gay Pride. The use of the term "mad" here is interesting because it's a word with many meanings: "fanatical", "angry", "foolish" and "insane" to name just four. Then there are a few compounds like "madcap" which I think of as being a wonderfully British word like "barmy" or "bonkers". I guess it's the "insane" sense of "mad" that's being used by the Mad Pride movement, perhaps with a tinge of anger, and because "mad" in that sense is a pejorative term it's only people who are "mad" who can get away with using it, a bit like what we've seen with "queer". The radio programme continued by interviewing some members of Sendam, who are mainly a drumming band based in Wellington, made up of mental health patients. The name is almost "madness" backwards - if they'd kept the double S you'd have pretty much got a cross between a Korean car and a viral pop song from the same country. They band were accepting donations so I gave them $15.

Talking of relationships, I asked Tracy if she wanted to see The Intouchables at the Penthouse. She said yes - probably one evening this week although I don't yet know which. Do I treat this as a date? Although we have similar interests our personalities are maybe too far apart, but you never know I suppose.

A bloke who sat not too far from me got fired last Wednesday. There in the morning, gone by lunchtime. It was for serious misconduct, though I have no idea what. I don't keep up with all the office gossip. From what I could tell he was good at his job. My boss and his boss are are in the process of grading and "calibrating" us based on our performance. As we found out last week, the percentage of employees who gets each of the grades is fixed. This raised one or two eyebrows in our team: "So even if we've all done a really good job, some of us will still get the low grades?" Yes, my boss said, saying that he didn't make the rules. I then piped up, saying that at least there's a flip-side: even if we've all been rubbish, some of us will still get the top grades. One of my colleagues likened the system to a school exam; working for a large company feels a lot like school to me. When I arrived at the company to start my actuarial role, I was given an HR pamphlet outlining various grades; it mentioned a literal decimation policy of "managing out" the bottom 10% of employees. As soon as I read that I thought, oh shit, that'll be me. In my current role, despite all the talk of grades last week, I really couldn't give two hoots what grade I get.

This afternoon I went to play poker with Martin at the Realm in Hataitai. Only it wasn't on. Their regular Sunday tournaments ended last weekend. We played a few games of pool instead on their free but ramshackle pool table. They've still got a tournament on Tuesday night and we've agreed to play then, so I'll need to rearrange my other commitments (I normally see Julie on a Tuesday).

It's been quite a hot day today. A couple of times lately I've been caught out, forgetting that Wellington does get sun occasionally and that it does burn just like anywhere else. I've still done precisely zero Christmas shopping. I plan to squeeze it all into a couple of hours next Saturday. What on earth do I get my brother?

I recently discovered the Icelandic group Of Monsters and Men after hearing this song which a bank used for one of their adverts. I think they're great.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Panic attack with a positive spin

I had a panic attack at work today. At about 3pm, out of the blue, the whole office seemed to spin for a few minutes as if I'd had far too much to drink. After the storm passed I still felt pretty yick for the next half-hour. I haven't had one like that for ages.

In my last post I forgot to mention Saturday morning's earthquake. Maybe I'm getting blasé about them now. It struck at 7:20 while I was still half-asleep. It was a significant shake but not enough to prise me out of bed.

Probably the biggest news story of the last week has been that prank call (not the one my work colleague made to a florist yesterday, but the one those Australian radio hosts made to King Edward VII hospital). The whole episode, which I found quite funny at first (how did they succeed with an accent that bad?!) but of course turned utterly tragic, is extremely unfortunate. Although their prank was perhaps ill-advised, there was no malicious intent on the part of the radio hosts; I just hope they aren't scarred for life by this.

I hope I can survive the Christmas party. I expect I'll need various tactical drinks and pees.

Some pictures from Saturday's tramp: an ostrich at Karori Sanctuary, an out-of-place modern castle (we saw someone hoon out of the castle grounds in a Porsche), a view looking back towards southern Wellington, and a World War II bunker.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Saturday's tramp (see next post for photos) was a real workout. Luckily the weather was just about perfect. We started at the Brooklyn wind turbine, were greeted by ostriches along the way, and ended up at some Second World War bunkers at the southernmost point of the track following a steep descent over perhaps half a kilometre. Not all of us did that last bit; I certainly had second thoughts about it. We had lunch by the bunkers and then had to climb up that steep slope. I struggled. My heart was pounding furiously. At the top of the steepest section (it was still pretty steep for a good way after that) I took a rough measurement of my pulse using the second hand of my watch. Boom-boom-boom, tick, boom-boom-boom, tick. One-eighty. We got back to the windmill at about 3:30, then went to the cafĂ© attached to the Penthouse cinema. It turned out the one of the trampers is an actuarial student, with three exams to go before qualification under the US system. He seemed almost as disillusioned with the whole thing as I did towards the end. I must say I felt good after all that exercise, though I've felt a bit washed out and unmotivated so far this week.

My poker cash-out cheque arrived today. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss online poker, but the withdrawal symptoms are starting to wear off now I think.

The highlight at work today was when a colleague of mine thought frangipani (the flower) was pronounced "fraggy penny". She was then persuaded to ring up a local florist and ask if they had any "fraggy pennies". On Friday we've got that damn Christmas party.

Last night the autism group had their Christmas party (of sorts); we played a few games of Tsuro (one of Tracy's board games) and ate junk food.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bond and bowling

I've now played my last hand of online poker for what I hope is a very long time, and it feels pretty good. I've been wondering what the big draw card, so to speak, of online poker was in the first place. I can't say I got a thrill from it. It was mentally stimulating however, it felt "safe" because the rules never changed and made sense, and I never had to deal with real people. Plus it was a means of escape. But I've finally had enough of staring at a screen. I'm just about to cash out all my money, but how will I spend it? I've got enough for a pretty decent holiday, so I'm thinking I might go somewhere in May or June. Vegas?! Watch this space.

Last Wednesday we had the fortnightly depression group, which was made harder for me when one of my work colleagues turned up. Even in Wellington, which can be almost villagey at times, you'd get fairly long odds on that. Even though her desk is within twenty feet of mine, I don't know her that well. She's a large lady (about my height and considerably broader); she broke her arm at that work event (I'm guessing alcohol was a factor) and hasn't been in the office since. She was talked about yesterday - her ears would have been burning. Anyway, it almost defeats the object of a group when feel you can't talk openly.

On Wednesday we had all the Hobbit hysteria in Wellington (seeing that Hobbitised 777 flying over town at low altitude was impressive I must say), on Thursday I had lunch with Tracy, then on Friday I saw Skyfall, the latest Bond movie, with people from work. I don't find socialising with work people easy, but seeing a movie with them I can just about handle. We saw it in the Gold Lounge where we could lay back on Lazyboy-style chairs. The film was pretty decent I thought, a huge improvement on Quantum of Solace.

On Saturday I played my final hands of online poker, then on Sunday met up with three members of the depression group in Petone to try Laser Strike (i.e. a version of paintball that still allows you to walk afterwards), but that was all booked out so we did bowling instead. We played two games. My very first ball landed in the gutter but I recovered to post a solid 125 in the first game. Then, at the half-way stage of the second game my scorecard looked like this: 9/ X X X 9/. Sheesh. Breaking 200 was a serious possibility. But I basically crashed and burned in the second half to shoot a 159. I've always had reasonable accuracy without any style, technique or speed to speak of. And I haven't played that much, except for a spell in Peterborough when I played weekly; my highest score was 191 and I once broke 500 for three games. I don't think it's a game I could really get into seriously - it's all a bit brash and American.